Future Tense

Tonga’s Devastating Volcanic Eruption Has Left the Island Without Internet

An aerial view of an island covered in ash.
Heavy ash has fallen across Tonga. Handout/Getty Images

For the second time in two years, the Pacific archipelagic state of Tonga is out of contact with the world—the first time thanks to an anchor on a Turkish ship, and now due to the spectacular eruption of an underwater volcano. The volcanic blast on Tuesday was so strong it caused a devastating tsunami in Tonga, killing multiple people and wiping out homes, and it drowned two people in Peru more than 6,000 miles away. Now, Tonga faces the prospect of weeks without internet.

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All of this reminds us that the internet, at the end of the day, largely depends on physical infrastructure to run. For all the talk of “cloud” and “cyberspace,” many wires, cables, and servers form the communication underbelly of the social media platforms and text messages we see on our screens. The natural disaster facing Tonga—where a weather event has cut off an entire country’s internet—underscores the criticality of this internet infrastructure. After all, you can’t mark yourself safe on Facebook if you can’t get online.

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The internet is pervasive in most of our lives. And even those among us who choose to stay “offline” usually at least engage in the nearly 150-year-old practice of making phone calls. Both the internet and telephone calls rely on the same network of nearly 500 submarine cables—each the size of a garden hose—lying on the floor of the ocean. Policymakers are paying more attention to their national security dimensions, as with the risk of states deliberately sabotaging this infrastructure, but Tonga’s situation underscores that is not enough. More often, damage to the cables that carry intercontinental internet traffic comes from natural disasters and accidents: a volcanic eruption, a dragged anchor, shark bites, or a fishing incident. When people are trapped in a disaster, access to food and water is cut off, and the international community is attempting to help assess and understand the damage, states must find ways to ensure they can still communicate with their citizens and the outside world.

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Big countries like the United States—which has more than 12,000 miles of coastline—still have more work to do to build redundancy and resiliency into critical infrastructure, including for the internet. Yet relatively speaking, the U.S. has more resilient internet infrastructure than most other countries. Even when water, electricity, and, ironically, “landline” phone services are temporarily unavailable, most American households remain connected to the internet. Social media has adapted to be able to provide emergency novelties such that marking oneself “safe” on Facebook, for example. But right now, most Tongans can neither let loved ones know whether they are alive, nor reach out to emergency workers to call for help. Domestic telephone communication has been partially restored, but reaching out to the rest of the world remains largely impossible.

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At the moment, assessing the situation in Tonga is extremely difficult.  The ash cloud continues to inhibit access to the country, and the lack of connectivity means that “crowd sourcing” information—even about how badly hit the coastal areas are—is not possible.  As news reports have begun to indicate, access to fresh drinking water is a problem and becoming urgent. Tonga’s principal water supplies come from rainwater capture, and the breakdown of infrastructure as well as the presence of the ash cloud threaten that most fundamental of human needs. In 2022, however, it is all but unthinkable that an entire country—able to compete on the world’s stage in rugby and attract high-end tourism from around the world—would simultaneously lack both drinking water and the ability to communicate that crisis.

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If the United Nations is serious in its assertion that access to the internet is a human right, then we should at least figure out how to make sure that right is safeguarded in times and places when access to our most fundamental human needs—food, water, shelter, and medical care—are all in jeopardy.

The United States, for one, could get more involved in making resilience in submarine cable systems and internet infrastructure a more central part of its capacity-building work overseas. Many other countries with advanced internet infrastructure and the means to invest in protecting it could likewise help develop best practices for ensuring communications resilience in times of crisis. Furthermore, technologists can do more to help create new ways to mobilize the mechanisms necessary to overcome interruptions to critical communication infrastructure. Yet, given many countries like Tonga have far different levels of resources and different kinds of needs, a one-size-fits-all approach will not get the job done, so we must be both agile and creative.

The common thread, though, is that during a crisis, we all need to communicate—and damaged internet infrastructure gets directly in the way.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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